Meat from a test tube: the beginning of the end of the era of livestock?

    28 Nov 2021

    We’ve found for you a few facts about cultivated (cellular) meat. Also there are additional opnion by eco-activist Olexiy Burkovsky about the future of livestock connected with this remarkable invention.

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    Do not be surprised by quotes and direct speech of scientists, marketers and other professionals, because the format of this article was just a magazine. This article is not about agriculture or the agro-industry, it is an article about biotechnology and environmental issues. The publication was prepared only on the basis of English-language sources and, I hope, will give nourishment to readers, including those who are related to the agricultural sector.

     

    Introduction

    In recent decades, agriculture has almost completely become an agro-industry, but a new revolutionary trend is already looming on the horizon, which is able to bury its most expensive industry – livestock. This is a food biotechnology for the production of cultured meat “in vitro” or as it is also called cellular, laboratory or pure meat. It should be emphasized that this is meat, not its substitutes based on vegetable (soy) or mushroom protein isolates. This is real meat grown from animal cells in special bioreactors, but without growing the animals themselves. Several cultivated meat startups have already been launched in the United States, the European Union and Israel. So far, there is experimental work, improvement and reduction of technology, but in the next 1.5-2 years, this product will appear on supermarket shelves. It is predicted to have a great future to deal with extremely complex environmental, food and even ethical issues.

     

    The problem of cooking, stereotypes and marketing

    There is much to be said about the environmental and ethical benefits of producing any product, but most buyers will be primarily interested in three main factors: taste, price, and health safety. Meat substitutes based on soy, wheat protein and mushroom protein (mycoprotein) are now produced. The experience of their production and implementation is very interesting for marketing. Their appearance on the market was initially also considered a culinary breakthrough. But over time, soy “meat” and similar products were able to occupy a small market share. Experience has shown that the main obstacle to the development of this area of ​​protein products were culinary characteristics. Taste, smell (or rather its absence), structure and other organoleptic qualities simply did not like the mass buyer, even at reasonable prices. So today it is just a niche product, especially for vegetarians and vegans.

    However, cultured meat is fundamentally different from surrogates in that it is meat in nature and composition. Cultivated beef is beef, and cultured pork is pork. However, so far, there are some technological problems in providing the appropriate muscle structure and the cultured meat resembles a stuffing of animal cells. However, scientists are already working to ensure that the meat from the test tube has a typical muscle structure and does not differ in its organoleptic qualities from the usual.

    The question of price, as well as culinary qualities, is a matter of time. Mercedes Villa, a spokesman for Biotech Foods (Spain), said: “in order to just eat sausages, no one will want to pay big money.” The first burger, made in 2013 from cultured meat, cost 335 thousand dollars. This is not surprising, because the whole technological complex and production chain were involved in its production. However, since 2013, the cost of making experimental samples of cultured meat has been steadily declining. In order to compete with traditional meat, the price of cultivated meat must be at or below, and this is what scientists, technology developers and producers will strive for.

    Matthew Ball, of the non-profit NGO Good Food Institute (USA), says: “This is a typical situation for new technologies. Today, you can afford an iPhone for a few hundred dollars, but the first one cost $2.6 million.” At the initial stage, cultivated meat, as well as meat based on proteins from plants and insects, will cover the sector of semi-finished products: sausages, burgers, etc. where the difference between “real” and “artificial” is blurred.

    Marketers also note that the feedback between livestock producers and consumers is weak. While high-tech companies, such as cultivated meat producers, are able to respond more quickly to customer demand and requirements, pursue a more flexible pricing policy and creative advertising.

    Experts note that the largest component of the cost of cultivated meat is energy consumption, and that this is the direction that scientists need to correct in the first place to make the new product competitive in price. In addition to a direct solution to this issue, there are other alternative ways. For example, some American companies, such as Finless Foods and Blue Nalu, are working to produce cultivated fish fillets instead of meat. Because fish are cold-blooded animals, culturing fish cells requires lower temperatures and less energy than laboratory meat production.

     Meat production in bioreactors also requires additional ingredients, such as adding some vitamins to the nutrient medium. However, the most dangerous food pathogens are associated with the products of modern industrial livestock. Chris Bryant, a researcher at the University of Bath, says: “Some people think that cultured meat will not be as tasty as usual, others think that it will be very expensive. Many people worry that meat grown from cells is not natural. Of course, people rarely think about the fact that meat grown by current technology is definitely far from being natural! Animals are raised to gain weight unnaturally fast and are pumped in large amounts with hormones and antibiotics to make them grow faster. Pure meat can really avoid this practice.”

    Growing meat in bioreactors avoids many of the risks that livestock encounters. This technology reduces the risk of pathogens and contaminants, and can significantly reduce the risk of epidemics (epizootics) worldwide, such as bird flu and African swine fever. Losses from these diseases, costs of preventive and quarantine measures, restrictions on logistics, etc. today cause significant damage to livestock and this also affects the cost of its products. However, skeptics note that cell culture is difficult to control perfectly and that some unexpected biological mechanisms with an unknown potential effect can take place and affect muscle structure, and possibly even human metabolism and health. However, an effective food control system must be in place to prevent such possible problems. And this is where the development of the market for cultivated meat is hampered by the regulatory framework, which lags behind the development of this technology.

    There are already about 20 companies in Europe investing in the development of cultivated meat technology. As Mercedes Villa (Biotech Foods) representative states: “We are not competitors, we are rather messengers of a new concept, according to which it is better not to be alone.” Today, the development of regulations and standards for farmed meat in the EU is somewhat faster than in the US. Already today, in accordance with the requirements of the European Food Safety Authority, companies producing laboratory meat are given 18 months to prove its safety. China recognizes EU safety standards, so the implementation of this innovation will not have any problems in this country. The United States is now trying to speed up the development of standards for farmed meat to keep up with Europeans. This is not surprising, because Dutch and American companies investing in cultivated meat technology plan to enter the market with a new product at the same time, in 2021.

    Some experts believe that the production of cultivated meat, as well as any promising innovation, it would be appropriate to provide state support if the environmental benefits of this technology are proven in practice. So far, the regulatory framework for the development of the meat industry has not been fully implemented, but over time things will be different and regulatory mechanisms will increasingly play against classical animal husbandry, as environmental legislation will become stricter every year. Overconsumption of land and water resources, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste management will become more complex and expensive. Given the huge consumption of resources, growing demand for meat and increasing environmental safety standards, livestock products will become more expensive, which will provoke demand for cheaper alternatives. Already today, it is predicted that beef, which is the most expensive and environmentally unsafe area of ​​meat farming, will gradually move into the category of premium food.

     

    Ethical issue

    If for the majority of consumers the price, safety and quality of production come first, then for a certain part of buyers, especially in developed countries, an important argument is the ethics of production and environmental safety. This is especially true for young people, many of whom are concerned about the treatment of farm animals. This category of the population today has the largest percentage of vegetarians, and a certain part of this group does not become vegetarian only because of imperfect culinary alternatives. Therefore, if cultivated meat will be little different from ordinary meat, the number of consumers of the new product will increase many times. It is obvious that young people will have an increasing influence on demand and this is the target category for cultivated meat, including for ethical reasons.

    Daan Luining, development director of the Dutch company Miatable, which created the first burger from cultivated meat, says: “We have billions of animals that are raised and eaten. If we can reduce this figure by 10 or 20%, it will be a significant reduction for the environment, but we do not expect it to be done in 10 years. The only thing that appears on our horizon today is simply to stop the growth of animal consumption. If we achieve this, it will be a huge victory.”

    One of the world’s most authoritative ideologues of animal protection from cruelty, Peter Singer, wrote in the 1970s: “In most cases, we do not want to know anything about any cruelty to living creatures of nature, if they are outside our immediate interest in the food we eat… What verbal tricks we don’t use to disguise the horror of what we do.”

    In recent years, the problem of ethical treatment of animals and the prevention of cruelty to them has changed significantly in developed countries. It is gradually moving from the sphere of moral responsibility to the sphere of legislation. The general trend is obvious ─ the requirements for keeping farm animals in terms of humane treatment will become increasingly stringent.

    Cultivated meat production technology also requires animals. However, these animals act only as cell donors, so there is no need to keep a large number of them. Thus, large-scale production of farmed meat will mean a significant reduction in the number of domestic animals, which will improve their situation through a corresponding reduction in the number of livestock farms. It is also worth noting that the ideologues of animal protection are usually socially active people who, for the sake of the idea, will actively advertise and promote technology that will save millions of animals.

    The problem of rigid keeping of animals on farms is not hidden like an awl in a bag. Nobody believes in the provincial idyll, when the animal was able to live at least a comfortable life under the blue sky and on the green grass of the pasture. That used to be the case, but today it is the exception rather than the rule. The agro-industry has supplanted agriculture, the green lawn has long been replaced by isolated animal fattening shops.

    Although cultivated meat does not remove all ethical issues regarding the exploitation of animals, it has a number of absolute ethical advantages over modern animal husbandry. Marketing researchers note an increase in consumer awareness of this issue in developed countries, which are also the largest consumers of meat products. Natalie Rolland, a specialist in cellular farming at ProVeg, said: “A large number of people are aware of the problems of traditional animal husbandry, they know about the advantages of farmed meat over farm meat, and are therefore willing to buy and eat it.”

    In animal husbandry, genetic engineering and cloning have been considered as one of the most promising areas of industry development for many years. However, the issue of ethics is one of the biggest obstacles to the creation of genetically modified farm animals. In a number of developed countries, strict legislation and protests by NGOs regarding the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) stand in the way. Thus, the production of cultivated meat can put an end to the controversy over the feasibility of GMO cultivation and cloning in terms of environmental safety, health and biological ethics. These areas will no longer claim the agro-industrial sector, but will remain in pharmacology, microbiology and medicine. With the development of cultivated meat production, the problem of using GMOs in animal husbandry will simply be removed from the agenda, because there will be no need for the animals themselves.

     

    The main argument

    The biggest destroyer of the natural environment on the planet is the agricultural sector, and the most important factor in its structure is animal husbandry. Today, about 70% of all agricultural land is used for livestock production. About 40-50% of the global grain harvest is used for cattle fattening. In developed countries, this figure is many times higher.

    According to the law of the trophic pyramid, when consuming food from one trophic level to another passes on average about 10% of the mass, and 90% is spent on the energy of physiological processes. This means that you need about 10 kg to make 1 kg of meat. grains. At the same time, the efficiency of meat is obviously much lower than that of grain, because food made from 1 kg of meat cannot be fed to 7-8 people a day, while 10 kg. grain for this will be more than enough.

    The production of cultured meat eliminates the need to support the physiological processes of the whole animal, so the efficiency of feed (nutrient medium) is many times higher than when fattening animals. That is, artificial technology allows you to “outsmart” the trophic pyramid, removing unnecessary costs for physiology. The efficiency of farmed meat can be compared to an LED lamp, which uses most of the energy for lighting, while meat farming can be compared to an incandescent lamp, where the main energy goes to heating, which causes lighting.

    According to FAO, the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050, and the meat industry will need to increase production by 50-73% to keep per capita demand at current levels. Any attempts to reduce the negative impact of animal husbandry by optimizing the feed base, improving the waste management system and increasing the efficiency of the feed system do not yield the desired result. Therefore, today there is a need for a radical change in approaches to meat production, if humanity does not decide to completely switch to a vegetarian diet. Otherwise, instead of satisfying human appetites, modern animal husbandry will simply eat up the global ecosystem.

    Today, only 23% of untransformed natural land ecosystems (forests, steppes, swamps) remain on Earth with the required minimum of 67%. That is, humanity has been living in debt and for inertia for more than a decade and the inertia of the results of what nature has formed in the past: suitable composition of the atmosphere, water regime (precipitation, rivers), soils, biodiversity, geochemical cycles. It is the scarcity of natural ecosystems and their subsequent extinction that is the greatest direct ecological threat, and it is modern animal husbandry (the development of which is caused by population growth and consumption) that plays a major role in this catastrophic scenario.

    It is also believed that a quarter of all greenhouse gases are generated in agricultural production. This is primarily due to the destruction of natural ecosystems that accumulate in biomass and regulate the carbon dioxide cycle. Their transformation into pastures and fodder fields for the production of fodder destroys this natural cycle.

    A separate factor, albeit smaller in its impact than the destruction of ecosystems, is the direct emission of greenhouse gases in livestock. Cattle are thought to be particularly negative because they emit a lot of methane, and this gas has 34 times the greenhouse potential of carbon dioxide. However, critics of cultured meat production believe that the CO2 equivalent should not be used to calculate its effectiveness. According to them, carbon dioxide and methane have different effects on the climate.

    Professor Raymond Perehumbert of the Martin School in Oxford says: “Methane has a much greater effect on warming per tonne of emissions than carbon dioxide. However, it remains in the atmosphere for 12 years, while carbon dioxide remains stable and accumulates for millennia. This means that methane does not have a long-term accumulative effect. Dr. John Lynch points to the need to optimize energy consumption in the production of farmed meat: “The impact on the climate of cultivated meat will depend on what level of renewable energy will be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future production technology. If the energy costs of producing laboratory meat are too high, then its production will be even worse for the climate than raising cows.

    Proponents of the new technology believe that the transition to cultivated meat and vegetable proteins should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including because the production of cultivated meat will take place directly in cities, which will significantly reduce energy costs for logistics and its cost.

    It is not yet easy to pinpoint the energy and resource consumption of cultivated meat, as mass production has not yet begun. There are only preliminary estimates, which differ significantly. However, both optimistic and relatively pessimistic estimates are striking for the difference in costs between farm beef and laboratory beef.

    Technology and resources

    In general, the technology is as follows. From the body of the animal is selected a meager amount of tissue or cells and placed in a bioreactor, which feeds the nutrient medium and where the formation of muscle mass from cells. If stem cells are used, substances produced by special strains of Escherichia coli can be used to differentiate cells into muscle tissue. In addition, vitamins are added to the nutrient medium, but the weight of all these additional nutrients is less than 0.1% of the weight of the nutrient medium. Given the scale of the use of food additives, growth promoters, veterinary drugs and antibiotics used in animal fattening, it is not surprising that cultivated meat is also called pure meat. In addition, controlling the leak of water or waste in a closed cycle biotechnology enterprise is much easier than controlling the surface runoff of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides from the surface of fields where fodder crops are grown for livestock.

    In order to grow cultivated meat, it still needs to be “fed”. Today, two main sources of resources for the nutrient medium are considered. The first is cereals and legumes. For example, corn produces starch and, accordingly, glucose, the amino acid glutamine and some other components. Also used soybeans, which produce a hydrolyzate, which serves as a source of many other amino acids to build proteins. Therefore, in order to create such a nutrient medium, its components go through all stages, from sowing, care and harvesting in the field, to the biochemical production of its components in industrial biolaboratories. Despite the long technological chain and significant energy costs, such technology is still more efficient in some respects than cattle fattening.

    According to the calculations of American experts in the cultivation of meat on a nutrient medium made from cereals and legumes, it is more than 6.5 times more energy-intensive than pork, 4 times more than poultry and 1.3 times more than beef.

    However, the global warming potential of farmed meat is 4 times lower than that of beef, although it is less than 3 times lower than that of poultry and 1.8 times lower than that of pork. But if you take the main environmental indicator, land resources, then to create a unit of mass of cultivated meat requires 1.7 times less area than for poultry, 3.5 times less than for pork and 16.5 times less than for beef! That is why the company pays the most attention to the technology of obtaining cultured beef, as in animal husbandry it is the most resource-intensive. In addition, today it is the most expensive type of meat and costs 2-3 times higher than pork and poultry.

    Proponents of the new technology point out that the environmental friendliness of farmed meat cannot be assessed on the basis of past production technologies. Scientists and developers are increasingly paying attention to alternative sources for its creation. That is why one of the most detailed cited scientific papers on the evaluation of cultivated meat is the calculations carried out at Oxford University (Hannah Tuomisto et al.), Where the basic element of the nutrient medium was a fundamentally new source ─ hydrolyzate of cyanobacteria. The gain in nutrition and volume occurs in this technology due to factors of time and volume. In fact, the basis for the nutrient medium is phytoplankton, which is grown in special pools. Like any phytoplankton, cyanobacteria grow extremely fast in the water column. After hydrolysis of their biomass, the constituent components of the nutrient medium are obtained for growing meat in vitro. Therefore, the environmental performance indicators conducted by Oxford University (see TABLE 2) are much higher than those of American researchers.

    As calculated by American scientists, the energy consumption per unit of production in the cultivation of farmed meat is higher compared to agro-industrial pork and poultry, although the gap is no longer so large. Compared to poultry, energy consumption is 1.8 times higher, compared to pork 1.4 times higher. However, compared to beef, energy consumption is already 1.6 times lower.

    For other fundamentally important indicators, the benefits of growing cultivated meat according to these calculations are undeniable. The amount of greenhouse gases is 3.5 times lower compared to poultry, 4.5 times lower compared to pork and 15.5 times lower compared to beef. Water consumption compared to agro-poultry, pork and beef is 7.5 times lower, 10 times lower and 23.5 times lower, respectively. The data on such a fundamentally important indicator as land use is simply impressive. It takes 47, 50 and 217 times less area per unit of cultivated meat than agro-industrial poultry, pork and beef, respectively! Thus, when using cyanobacterial hydrolyzate as a basis for the nutrient medium, greenhouse gas emissions, land area, and water volume are reduced by an average of 78-96%, 99% and 82-96%, respectively, per ton of ’Yas compared to modern animal husbandry.

    According to these studies, if all 27 EU countries completely abandon meat farming and switch to farmed meat, then total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU will be reduced by 43% per year, total water consumption will be reduced by 21% and 38% of the territory The EU will be exempt from economic use.

    The authors of the study note that cultivated meat has a huge environmental potential. First, it is possible to return natural ecosystems (forests, steppes, swamps) to land vacated from the agricultural sector to provide ecosystem services, i.e. to carry out revailing. Second, the technology will stop hunting rare species for meat, as the meat of such animals can be cultivated. Of course, uncertain details about the environmental impact of cultivated meat remain high, so further research and development of cultivated meat technology is needed.

    The current EU agri-environmental concept provides for the breeding of species and breeds of animals that are better adapted to the environment, ensuring animal welfare through the reduction of stress and disease. However, the latest technology can lead to completely unexpected changes in the political and managerial paradigm, and it is clear that meat in vitro is one of them. Therefore, the agri-environmental approach to animal husbandry in the EU is likely to be revised. As climate change increasingly influences government policies, it is more likely that sustainable meat production methods will be driven not only by the market but also by governments.

     

    Technology and illusions

    However, one should be very careful about techno-utopian enthusiasm. Without changes in mentality, lifestyle and regulatory framework, technological breakthroughs often turn into a “chase on the horizon”, when technology does not eliminate environmental threats, but rather exacerbates them. Suffice it to mention the agrarian “green revolution” of the mid-twentieth century, when new technologies increased yields, but did not solve either the food or environmental problem, but only provoked their further exacerbation due to the population explosion and the cult of consumption. Without proper legislative and administrative regulation, all the benefits of farmed meat technology can be nullified if most of the land exempted from the agricultural sector is provided for development or energy crops, rather than for the reproduction of natural ecosystems. Like the “green revolution”, it could provoke a new population explosion, because there will be an illusion that now there will be enough food on the planet for billions of people.

     There is no substitute for adequate demographic policies and economical consumption. The invention is often easier to make than to push to the masses, otherwise there would be no 7 billion people on the planet, when reliable contraceptives have long been developed and the physiological features of civilized and humane family planning have been sufficiently studied. Instead, the mental factor (culture, behavior, habits, traditions, whims, stereotypes) is stronger than technology. Another example: due to constant technical improvements, the energy consumption of each individual unit decreases, but global energy consumption increases.

    Agribusiness has something to think about. As an example, we can cite Saudi Arabia, where they have already realized the inevitability of the end of the oil era and therefore are rapidly investing money in solar energy. Thanks to this approach, Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to remain one of the leaders in energy production, simply instead of oil it will be electricity.

    The rapid development of cultivated meat technology is just one example of the technological revolution in the food industry. Artificial photosynthesis, molecular food engineering, etc. are not far off.

    The United Nations is urging humanity to reduce meat consumption because of the environmental threat. Unfortunately, a person lacks the willpower to change his culinary habits even in the face of a global threat. That’s why so far technologies have to adapt to the whims of people. However, the mental-psychological factor will always be decisive in human behavior. The once famous German social psychologist Erich Fromm aptly remarked on one of the shortcomings of Marxism: “Marxism has too much economics, but too little psychology.” We also have to admit that eco is in the solution logical problems to date too much technology, but too little psychology and management. Therefore, in tactical terms, humanity is forced to rely on technology, but in strategic terms, to prevent environmental collapse, the key factor is global psychology, political will and governance, which should affect not only demographics and consumption, but also the choice of technology on the principle: it is necessary to give humans not what they want, but what they really need.

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    Are there new startups that produce artificial meat and whole egg alternative? Read about them here.

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